Interview: Marissa Martinez (Cretin)

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It’s instructive to go back to albums you considered pivotal years ago and see if you listen to them anymore. One album that still gets ample time in my house is Cretin’s Freakery, released in 2006. It’s the ultimate companion piece for Repulsion’s Horrified, the grindcore staple, and about as good of a statement you can make on your first proper album. Songs like “Walking a Midget” are contagious, abrasive, and infused with wicked wit and absurdity.

Plenty has happened since Freakery was released. Guitarist/vocalist Marissa Martinez came out as transgendered in an excellent Decibel article published in 2008. If you haven’t read the article, you should track down a copy; it’s top-shelf music journalism.

At that point Martinez’ story was just beginning. Since the article appeared, she had full gender reassignment surgery, went on a whirlwind tear through San Francisco’s nightlife, and fell in love. Throughout it all, she never lost her passion for grindcore, a music she loved since she was a teenager. Cretin bassist Matt Widener and drummer Col Jones (also Repulsion’s touring drummer) told Martinez they’d be happy to wait as she navigated her new life.,

In a world where you hear about the worst, Martinez offers the best: candor, a contagious sense of humor, and a desire to live an authentic life despite prejudice and fear. Martinez isn’t just a bad-ass grinder; she might just be one of the bravest people playing extreme music. Relapse will release Cretin’s new album this year.

— Justin M. Norton

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When you first went public with your story in 2008, were you scared about how it would be received, or did you have faith that the metal community would be accepting?

Honestly, I had no idea if I would be accepted. I imagined a lot of people laughing and joking about it. But I kind of just threw caution to the wind. And this was before I even did the gender transition. I felt a little bit stuck because I just I didn’t want to quit the band. I love my band. But it was something I had to do, so I didn’t think about the reaction.

I was married at the time. I had a house with my ex-wife, two dogs, and a career. I had a bunch of friends and family. I was 31. But things were just coming to a head, and I was getting to end of the rope. You just can’t imagine how hard it was to keep up the charade. Previously, I had just buried it. But something would come up that would push the transgender issues to the top. and I’d just push against it. I did it as long as I could.

Finally, my marriage was just failing. My ex and I hardly communicated. We had reached that point in our marriage where we were like, “OK, what’s the next step? Are we going to have kids?” But we weren’t planning for retirement or doing anything a normal couple usually does. Everything was at a stalemate. Basically, I just had to face the music. These issues just kept coming up, so we started marriage counseling. During counseling it became clear that the issue was my gender. Going though therapy helped me realize it.

How did the magazine article come about?

I’m friends with (Decibel editor) Albert Mudrian. I came out to him and pitched the idea that maybe we could do a story. I knew I needed to come out eventually. I figured it was better to come out to my friend’s magazine than another place. I knew I needed to come out to the metal scene because I didn’t want to quit the band. It seemed like the best outlet.

You are obviously accustomed to telling your story now, but I imagine the first time was difficult.

I don’t know. The first time might have been easier. I was in the thick of it. When I’m asked about my decision and how it worked, I have to think back at this point. So much happened that it’s kind of a blur three years later. At that time, it was easier to put my view across.

Do you still see or hear from your ex-wife?

Everything is good with us. Actually, I just saw her Monday because she does my hair. We don’t hang out on a regular basis. She’s remarried and lives in the East Bay. I live in San Francisco. Throughout the transition she supported me. She kind of gave me my first lessons on being a girl and nurtured me.

Everything that I do that I’m passionate about, I try to do genuinely. So when it came to transitioning, we knew it was a serious thing. I wasn’t trying to be ostentatious or a weekend drag queen. I was going to do this; I needed to do this. Because she was in the thick of it, she took it as seriously as I did. She helped me be genuine, even if it was something as superficial as doing my nails or tweezing my eyebrows. She set up my first appointment with a makeup artist at the MAC counter at the mall where she worked. She accompanied me because I was going to this public place by myself still very much looking like a guy. She sat there for moral support. I was very, very nervous early on. There were a lot of things like that. I had to relearn how to walk, how to talk, how to emote, and how to move. She even coached me on that, like, “Sit up straight! What are you doing?” She was very helpful.

There are a lot of details you don’t even consider when you’ve been in the same body for three decades.

I’ve always been very mindful of how women look and speak and act. I’d catalogue in the back of my head – “I wish I was like that. I wish I had hips like that”. From my own perspective, I continually recognize things and things I can improve on. Or I catch myself moving odd. My boyfriend thinks I’m crazy, but I have a huge attention to detail.

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Since you’ve shared your story, have you heard from other people in the scene who are going through similar struggles?

I have, and not just from fans, but from people in general. I get messages on the computer, and people ask for tips and pointers. But it’s hard because I’m not a therapist, and I don’t want to just be giving out advice. My advice is always that you need to seek out a gender therapist and see if they can help you.

What was the toughest story to hear?

There are a lot of variations. So many people are stuck. People have families that are extremely homophobic and might worry that their families are going to chastise them or exile them. It’s very difficult to hear. Others have messaged me, saying things like, “I am extremely masculine. I’m 6′6″ and 210 pounds. I can’t transition”. They aren’t sure where to go or what to do, and unfortunately there’s not much I can do. Therapy helps you figure it out.

Do you try to direct them to other resources?

I try to find out if they have a health care provider, and if they can use their health care provider to find a local therapist. Or I direct them to look online. I can’t recommend one service. I just know what I needed. I still have my own day-to-day stuff to take care of.

I noticed that you not only have been featured in metal magazines, but also were a guest on a transgender podcast.

I hang out in a transgender club a lot. I’ve become a regular. I was talking to one of the drag mothers, and she said, “In 20-plus years, you are the quickest transition I’ve seen”. Yup, I was on the podcast. What happened was that they actually heard from some transgender Cretin fans (laughs). So they contacted me to do the show.

If I were 18 today, I wouldn’t have put off the transition. I didn’t even know what transgender was. I would just think of she-males and other oddities. It was eye-opening to find out transgenderism was an actual condition and not just some freaky fetish fantasy.

Has your decision to make the change and be open about it has made you more of a public figure than you ever would have been as an underground metal musician?

Yes. And it’s been a great honor. Usually people are just hearing about things like Marilyn Manson that are just caricatures of a transgendered person. But I’m down to earth, and I play down-to-earth music. I think it’s a great privilege, and something I’m going to take advantage of.

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Martinez on her favorite Repulsion songs

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Do you remember the first time you heard Repulsion?

I was hanging out with Matt Harvey in his bedroom. For years I’d wanted to hear Repulsion, and Widener was like, “You won’t like them. It’s too thrashy”. I was talking to Harv, and he threw it on, and I instantly fell in love with it. It was at his parents’ house in the mid-’90s in San Jose.

I instantly identified with the music. I found what I was looking for all along. Of course, I loved Carcass and Napalm Death and countless death metal bands. But they never really reached me the way I was expecting. The moment I heard the opening blastbeat on “The Stench of Burning Death”, I was like, “This is perfection. This is what I’ve been looking for my entire musical life”. It just grabbed me. It was something I identified with and was an expression of the music inside me, the music I wanted to make. I was kicking myself for not listening to it years earlier when I had the tape in my hand.

What do you think differentiates a good grind song from a mediocre one? Are there any bands that you are listening to a lot now?

The thing that differentiates any good music from any other is there has to be something that catches you. There has to be something stuck in your head for when you’re going to the bus or going to get groceries. It has to stay in your head. That’s good music. That’s why I like Repulsion. The song structure is very simple, and there is some melody you can hum. When grind gets to a point where you can’t make anything out and there’s nothing redeeming, [and] it’s just playing as fast as you can, it gets monotonous. I look for the hooks and catchy rhythms.

I haven’t really caught on to newer bands. I did get the final mixes for the new Exhumed album, and I’ve been listening to it a lot. I haven’t shopped for much music lately. I’ve been settling for my old favorites. I’m not constantly involved with the music anymore. I don’t have the hunger to find new bands. My interests lie in other places. I definitely have elitist tastes when it comes to grind and death metal. But as much as I love the music and will always go to shows and be part of the scene, I have other interests now, too. I just do different things. I’m more interested in girly things (laughs). Not that girls can’t grind…I’m just distracted, I guess.

What did it feel like to get on stage with Repulsion at last year’s Maryland Deathfest and receive an unbelievably warm response from the crowd?

It was mind-blowing. In 2007, I played with Repulsion in San Francisco. We played the same two songs that we played at the Maryland Deathfest. Repulsion is my musical idol. So to get up on stage [in Baltimore] and see this sea of people raising their arms and shouting positive things – I just didn’t expect it at all.

You are playing MDF this summer. Do you anticipate the new record will be out by then?

No, that’s not going to happen (laughs). After I transitioned, we should have had something ready to come out, but it just didn’t happen that way. We’d like to do an EP and have it ready for Deathfest, but time keeps ticking, and I’m not sure we’ll be able to do that.

When people met you at Deathfest, what was the response?

There were people who knew who I was, and they kept saying how supportive they were. And then there were younger people who didn’t know who I was. I was approached by a lot of young girls who were saying they were so excited to see a girl on stage grinding like that (laughs). So that was a whole different dimension of cool. There were girls asking to take their picture with me. There were also just people who wanted to talk to me about death metal.

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Martinez at MDF, photo by Justina Villanueva

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You elected to have full gender reassignment and blogged about your difficult physical comeback. What got you through those moments?

The initial answer is Percocet. Leading up to the surgery, I was confident, and that made it easier. This was something I really wanted to do. But [after the surgery] I was whiny and bitchy (laughs). All I can say is that your entire body and the nerves are connected to the crotch. I had a lot of healing to do down there, and the swelling was just so bad. Then when I healed, I had to dilate, like, six times a day. It’s basically inserting these different-sized plastic dildoes up there to stretch it out. So I had to keep inserting them, and it’s basically an open wound you are poking and prodding at. It wasn’t comfortable.

Was there any music that helped you during that period?

No, I didn’t really listen to music. I played a lot on the computer. I was messing around a lot on MySpace and Facebook.

As you were transitioning, did you put down your guitar for a while?

Early in my transition, I started writing for the next Cretin album. After a month or two, there was too much aggression, and I was too distracted with redefining myself. I went to rehearsal with the band, and they could tell I wasn’t there. I just said we need to put things on hold. Col and Matt completely understood, and said they were there whenever I wanted to come back to Cretin. I had a lot of self-exploration to do.

Now I’m a year past my gender reassignment. I’m settled. I’m rediscovering my interest in the music and playing. Going to MDF solidified everything. I loved being in the environment again. I contacted the folks at MDF then and asked if they wanted Cretin to play this year.

When you go back and listen to Freakery, do you feel like you were projecting who you really wanted to be and what was then your secret life?

I definitely was on “Daddy’s Little Girl” and “Object of Utility”. “Daddy’s Little Girl” might be one of the few cases where what’s in a song later happened in real life. Yeah, it’s very black metal (laughs). I mean, I knew these were fantasies that I had, but I didn’t know back then I was going to make the transition.

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“Daddy’s Little Girl”

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After all you’ve been through personally in the past few years, how is it to sit down with Cretin and write music?

Cretin has always just been an excuse for us to get together once a week to see each other. When you get older, people have different lives and families, so friends can kind of separate. Cretin has always been about friendship. It was always just a chance to get together and make some music and grind. It’s fun.

What will the new Cretin sound like? I don’t imagine there will a huge shift in sound.

There shouldn’t be. We do want to boost the production values. We intentionally went for a DIY, rough sound for Freakery. There were just too many Nasum clones. They were overproduced with drum triggers, and it made the music stale. We wanted to return to the sound we fell in love with. The early bands couldn’t afford professional studios, or the studios didn’t know how to produce them. We wanted a return to that. We wanted it to sound dirty, like it was held together by sweat and duct tape. We won’t have drum triggers or overdo things this time, but we do want to have a better mix.

Freakery is an exact representation of how I write. Whenever I deviate from that, I end up writing things I don’t like. It will sound pretty similar. Widener wants to participate in the songwriting more, too, which will color things.

Will there be any material that deals directly with what you’ve been through in the past few years?

No. Cretin is more about fun, nothing serious. We want to keep it that way. We want to keep it fun and lighthearted. There will be a trans-related song most likely, but we’re not going to speaking out.

Will you be writing from a different perspective, or will you look at your music the same way?

On Freakery, I wrote about 80 percent of the music, and Widener wrote about 80 percent of the lyrics. I always tend to focus on the music. He’s the one who thinks up most of the lyrics. I try to do different things with the guitar. I imagine we’re going to do the same thing. We actually haven’t been able to rehearse in a while. We should be getting together soon, and Widener just finished up something else with one of his other projects. I thought about a few things and ideas.

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Martinez on how her singing voice won’t change

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It seems like Relapse has been a great partner and supporter.

They have been. Betsey and Gordon [from the label] drove me to my hotel room after surgery and took care of me. I love them. They made such an impression helping me out that that my Mom asked about them when we visited at Christmas.

What does it feel like to look back at old YouTube videos before you transitioned?

In a lot of ways it feels like I’m looking at my brother or a sibling. It is my past, but it’s also very much not me. There is a disconnect with some of that stuff. I don’t how my life would have been different if I had transitioned at an earlier age. It’s strange to see.

How did you develop your interest in fetish models?

That was just innate. Pretty much when I became sexually aware, I stumbled across a magazine and was completely taken by it. It was these two [female] legs, and I kept looking at them. When I transitioned, I started thinking, “I can actually wear this stuff now”.

What was a weekend in San Francisco like for the liberated Marissa Martinez?

Initially I would go out on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday nights and drink like crazy. The weekends usually consisted of me dressing up really slutty and going to a bar and not paying for alcohol. There have been orgies, threesomes, chicks making out…rock and roll! (laughs) All of it was being who I should have been. I exploded into the nightlife. But I fell in love and have a boyfriend now. He’s kind of nervous that I might start doing this stuff again.

How did you meet your boyfriend? Is he into metal?

He’s in the scene. We met through a web forum on metal. He participated but didn’t have a huge presence. But one day he posted that he was in San Francisco for a few days. So I told him we should hang out. It was completely innocent because I was a militant lesbian at the time. We messaged each other and exchanged phone numbers.

We had dinner plans. I got off work and texted him and asked him about dinner, and he had gotten drunk the night before and forgotten about the plans. He played it off and found a good place for dinner. We just really hit it off all night. That was the end of it.

It seems like your story is one with a happy ending.

Well, there have been lots of happy endings (laughs).

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HEAR FREAKERY

“Object of Futility”

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Full album stream links:
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BUY FREAKERY

Amazon (MP3)
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Relapse (CD, LP, shirt)

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